Simulation-based learning benefits and challenges for eLearning

Susan Hurrell
Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
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Do you remember the Milton Bradley/Hasbro game “Operation” where the players pretended to be surgeons removing bones and organs from a patient with a set of metal tweezers? If you hit the sides of the space around “the funny bone,” for example, there would be a loud buzzing, the patient’s nose would flash red, and you would lose your turn. It was a great test of eye-hand coordination and fine motor skills. There were franchised versions (everything from Disney to Rick and Morty) and also made into a mobile-only video game.

That, my game-loving friends, is the earliest example of a commonly understood “simulation” that I could think of. Not that it taught us how to be a surgeon – far from it! It was an interactive imitation of a real-life scenario. 

At the outset, I want to say that learning simulations are certainly NOT video games. However, game-based elements are built into them to enhance the learner experience. A properly constructed, strategically designed learning simulation is a powerful tool that builds skills, increases knowledge retention, reduces learner performance anxiety, and improves your measurable training outcomes. 

Let’s talk about how learning simulations have become crucial components of many companies’ online training programs. Are you looking for an effective, engaging way to teach your employees complex tasks in a scenario with variable conditions and outcomes? Simulation-based learning can help your learners gain the skills they need while offering an immersive experience that’s more interactive than regular eLearning activities. 

In our article, we’ll explore:

What is simulation-based learning?

Simulation-based learning is an effective and engaging approach to training that uses simulated environments, activities, and scenarios to help users learn and apply their knowledge and build their skills. Why has this become so popular in corporate training? By centrally developing and deploying simulations, companies can standardize their processes, increase learner engagement, and provide learners with practical examples of how concepts are used in the workplace. 

Simulations come in various forms – from conversational interactions with an onscreen avatar in a customer service scenario to a replica airplane cockpit where you fly a plane and learn how to stick the landing. The medical field has been a strong advocate and integrator of simulation-based learning. Undoubtedly, the rise of Generative AI technologies will take future training simulations to entirely new levels. 

Simulation-based learning is especially beneficial for industries specifically working with complex technologies, processes, or tools because it allows training to effectively and consistently simulate real-life scenarios without risking lives or expensive resources. 

Here are some examples:

  • Physicians can use simulation technology to hone their decision-making skills without endangering their patients’ health and to improve their response to a variety of crisis situations
  • Law enforcement personnel can familiarize themselves with legal issues using 3D computer simulations
  • Aerospace engineers can get firsthand experience dealing with malfunctions without risking costly aircraft
  • Financial institutions can use simulations to ensure complex forms are filled out correctly by having their learners attempt to complete their documentation based on various client scenarios. Customer service representatives are trained on the case-by-case application of the latest banking regulations. The simulation incorporated scenarios based on real-life customer interactions, allowing employees to practice responding in various situations.
  • Sales and customer service teams can face numerous prospect, customer, or client interactions and use virtual role-play to solve the issues at hand, ensuring a consistent approach. Retailers can teach their salespeople how to close a sale effectively and politely. By simulating different scenarios, such as a customer who is hesitant to buy and one who wants more information, the salespeople were able to practice their skills without fear of failure and losing a potential sale/revenue opportunity.
  • Manufacturing employees can learn to assemble components correctly before they actually touch the real items, increasing their confidence and productivity when they are involved in production work.
  • The hospitality industry uses simulations to help employees provide better customer service during events. The simulation challenged them to respond correctly in various situations, from handling guest complaints to dealing with unruly guests.

By using simulations to explain complicated concepts, learners gain valuable insight into what they’re being taught and why; it’s like having a real-life “teacher” ready to show you exactly what’s needed without the fear of failure. Clearly, simulation-based learning provides numerous benefits across many industries, and its continued growth is evidence enough of its importance.

What are the benefits of simulation-based learning, and why is it a better alternative?

Simulation-based learning offers several advantages for corporate training, including:

  • Realistic scenarios: Simulations can provide a realistic and immersive learning experience replicating real-world situations. This can help learners develop skills and knowledge that can be applied directly in the workplace.
  • Engagement: Simulations can be highly engaging and interactive, helping learners to stay motivated and interested in the learning process. This can increase knowledge retention and improve the overall effectiveness of training.
  • Flexibility: Simulations can be designed to accommodate different learning styles and preferences, allowing learners to learn at their own pace and in a way that best suits their needs.
  • Cost-effectiveness: While simulation-based learning can be expensive to develop initially, it can be cost-effective in the long run as it can be used repeatedly without incurring additional costs.
  • Safe learning environment: Simulations can provide a safe environment for learners to practice and experiment with new skills without the risk of negative consequences. This can help build confidence and competence in learners.
  • Data collection: Simulations can also be used to collect data on learner performance, providing valuable insights into areas where learners may need additional support or training.
  • Environmental Impact: Because no materials are used – and destroyed – during the training period, less waste is generated, which has a positive impact on the environment. For medical procedures, fewer cadavers are needed, reducing the need to raise animals for medical procedure training. 

Simulation-based learning allows learners to explore every aspect of their field in an immersive, engaging manner that lets them learn at their own pace. With simulation-based learning, difficult concepts become easy and intuitive to understand, as learners can literally see for themselves how things work or, for more conversational scenarios, how different responses create friction or resolution. 

Plus, these types of simulations provide real-world examples relevant to different industries, roles, and skill sets. Simulations can be a key component of upskilling – giving employees a hands-on experience with new tasks or assisting with reskilling by allowing the trainee to perfect their skills virtually before returning to their duties. 

All of this makes simulation-based learning a highly effective platform – it enhances experiences through interactive scenarios while increasing retention rates even further.

What are the challenges of simulation-based learning?

Simulation-based learning has several challenges that might make it not a good choice for corporate training, including:

  • Cost: Developing high-quality training simulations can be expensive, especially if they require customized programming and advanced graphics. This cost can make it challenging for some organizations to implement simulation-based learning.
  • Time: Creating simulations can be time-consuming, making it difficult for companies with tight deadlines or limited resources to develop effective simulations. The time investment required to develop and implement simulation-based learning may not be feasible for all organizations.
  • Technical expertise: Simulations often require specialized technical expertise in areas such as programming, graphic design, and animation. Organizations that lack this expertise may find it difficult to develop high-quality simulations that effectively engage learners.
  • Accessibility: Some learners may have difficulty accessing simulation-based learning due to technical issues or disabilities. This may limit the effectiveness of simulation-based learning for certain learners.
  • Limited transferability: Simulation-based learning may not always be transferable to real-world situations. Some simulations may not accurately represent real-life scenarios, making it difficult for learners to apply the skills they have learned in the workplace.
  • Regulator Issues: for some government-regulated industries, simulated eLearning courses may not qualify as adequate replacements for actual hands-training experiences, or where the simulated training scenarios must be supplemented with a fixed number of actual training hours. Be sure to check any regulatory compliance requirements before implementing scenario-based training as your primary mode of training.

What to look for when hiring an eLearning development company to create your training simulations 

Fortunately, there are eLearning development companies that can become your trusted partner-in-training who have the technical expertise to build training simulations specifically designed for your business needs. When hiring an agency to create simulation-based training for their company, purchasers should look for the following high-level requirements:

  • Expertise and experience: It is essential to choose an agency that has a proven track record of creating effective simulation-based training for corporate clients. Look for an agency with experience in the industry and a team of experts in areas such as instructional design, game development, and graphic design.
  • Customization: It is important to choose an agency that can customize simulation-based training to meet the specific needs of the company. The agency should be able to create simulations that are aligned with the company's business objectives, target audience, and desired learning outcomes.
  • Interactive and engaging design: Effective simulation-based training should be engaging and interactive. Look for an agency that can create simulations with rich graphics, animations, and sound effects that will capture learners' attention and keep them engaged throughout the learning experience.
  • Assessment and feedback: Good simulation-based training should provide learners with immediate feedback and assessment to help them track their progress and identify areas where they need improvement. Look for an agency that can incorporate these features into the simulation.
  • Technical support and maintenance: Look for an agency that can provide technical support and maintenance for simulation-based training. The agency should be able to address any technical issues that arise and provide ongoing updates to keep the simulation relevant and up-to-date.
  • Data analytics and reporting: Effective simulation-based training should provide valuable data on learner performance, such as completion rates, assessment results, and feedback. Look for an agency that can provide detailed data analytics and reporting to help the company track the success of the training and identify areas where improvements can be made.
Six characters  around a fabricated eLearning course they are building. Starting at the top of the eLearning course, and going clockwise: Character sitting on the edge of the course page, with a laptop and the label, " "data analytics & reporting"; character sitting with a small block with a happy/sad face and 5 stars, and labelled, "assessment & feedback"; character standing on a ladder and holding a block of fake text to put on the screen, with the label, "interactive & engaging design"; character standing with a digital tablet, speaking, and has the label, "expertise & experience"; character with a paint roller, "painting" an image, and labelled, "customization"; character bent over slighly to pick up a large wrench, with the label, "technical support & maintenance."

While outsourcing your training simulation build might increase your training P&L expense line, the positive impact that simulation-based training will have on your workforce will prove that the cost was worth it. 

What does the research say about the impact of simulation-based learning? 

There is considerable research that suggests simulation-based training can be highly effective in improving learner retention and worker performance. There are many studies (often private) generated by associations, academia, and government that indicate the value of simulation-based training.

  • A study by the University of Central Florida found that simulation-based online training can improve learner performance by up to 20% compared to traditional training methods. 
  • According to a report by the Aberdeen Group, companies that use simulation-based online training experience a 14% improvement in productivity compared to those that do not. 
  • A study by the Defense Acquisition University found that simulation-based online training led to a 36% improvement in learner performance compared to traditional training methods. 
  • A report by Training Industry found that 72% of companies that use simulation-based online training report improved learner performance, and 68% report improved worker productivity. 

 It is important to note that the effectiveness of simulation-based online training may depend on several factors, such as the quality of the simulation, the relevance of the training to the learner's job, and the learner's motivation to learn.

These statistics suggest that simulation-based online training can be a highly effective tool for improving learner retention and worker performance. However, it is important to note that the effectiveness of simulation-based training may depend on several factors, such as the quality of the simulation, the relevance of the training to the learner's job, and the learner's motivation to learn.

What role do virtual and augmented reality play in simulation-based learning?

Virtual reality (VR) is a revolutionary technology that's beginning to take the world of simulation-based learning by storm. VR creates an immersive, 3D environment that acts as a digital simulation of the real world, allowing learners to engage with the content in their own unique way and get hands-on experience before attempting the task in the physical world Augmented reality (AR) blends real-world and simulations together in the online experience – think of Pokemon Go as the most commonly known version of augmented reality.

Three blocks, from left-to-right: Video training — a monitor with a video of a construction site playing; Augmented reality — a person's hand holding up a phone in front of a construction site, with the site showing on the phone with popups; Virtual reality — a character wearing VR goggles, while showing another bubble of what the character sees (themself now inside the construction site).

These types of virtual or augmented training engagement help create powerful learning opportunities for individuals who work in high-risk sectors such as healthcare, aerospace, defense, and energy. For example, a doctor can practice addressing a complicated medical situation in a safe, simulated environment without putting any patients at risk. Additionally, an engineer studying the latest construction techniques can take a virtual tour of an offshore drilling platform before ever boarding one. By utilizing virtual and augmented reality simulations, eLearning provides learners with unprecedented opportunities for success in their fields.

The future of online training – interactivity through simulation-based learning

The future of online training is increasingly interactive, and simulation-based learning is an effective educational tool for increasing engagement and effectiveness for all industries. It creates a safe and immersive learning environment, and the addition of virtual reality allows for greater opportunities to learn and engage with simulated environments. 

The advantages of this type of program, as opposed to traditional video-based classes, include improved knowledge retention, consistency in scenarios to create more broad standardization of responses, and more focused guidance on specific techniques needed to complete tasks within an industry. KPIs are increasingly suggesting that there are long-term cost savings associated with creating a rich and robust digital learning ecosystem with a wider range of training methodologies. 

Simulation-based learning is worth serious consideration going forward for any organization as it can be used to drastically improve the efficiency of employee education and increase engagement between learners and materials. We’ve come a long way from “Operation” – doctors can practice a procedure a hundred times before they pick up an actual scalpel. No one wants to see the patient’s nose flashing red!

If you are considering adding learning simulations to your eLearning ecosystem, we’d love to talk to you. Or you can find more articles in the Learning Hub about creating custom eLearning or other forms of online and digital training that may help you reach your training objectives.

Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
Susan Hurrell

With 15+ years of online marketing and online learning experience, Susan loves to share insights about where these two ROI-building practices can intersect and complement each other for your business or organization.

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